“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” – Winston Churchill
I remember listening to an episode of Fresh Air on NPR many years ago and the guest was Stephen Sondheim. One of the questions that Terry Gross asked him threw me for a loop. “Have you ever changed a lyric because it was too clever?” she asked. I thought, “What kind of question is that to ask a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and lyricist?” But as it turned out, Sondheim gave a long and thoughtful answer, proving two things to me: one, when interviewing someone, surprising questions often inspire the most substantive responses; and two, artfulness is not always the goal of creative work.
As communications experts, we at Libretto understand that writing well is not the same as communicating well. At its best, business writing is clear, concise, and direct. Readers have no time and even less inclination to ponder hidden meanings, unusual turns of phrase, or purple prose. Clever writing is not clear writing, and it typically serves the writer’s ego more than the client’s needs.
“I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying.” – Oscar Wilde
I used to work at WGBH and one of my responsibilities was to create brochures to help sell corporate sponsorships of national PBS programs, such as The American Experience, Mystery, NOVA, The Victory Garden, and others. I collaborated closely with designers and in one presentation meeting, the producer of a certain documentary film grew impatient with our insistence on fine-tuning various aspects of the piece. “This is not art,” he complained rather loudly and not a little insensitively. “What I do is art!”
He had a point, uncomfortable though it was to hear it. At the same time, you want your creative team to aspire to the highest standards of skill and quality they can muster in their work. And very often, small details can make a big difference. It was never our intention to create a work of art, but it took creativity and imagination to develop a compelling sales tool that would reflect the majestic sweep of a television program that had yet to be filmed. The producer was unwilling to acknowledge that while his medium and ours were different, each is susceptible to good or bad execution and we all took pride in delivering our best work.
“The highest condition of art is artlessness.” – Henry David Thoreau
That said, just as writers could fall in the trap of creating copy that is too ornate or verbose, designers can sometimes make perfectly good text hard to read by doing something visually “clever” to it, like rendering it sideways or in odd fonts or very small point sizes. If the writing isn’t clear and to the point, and if the design makes the words difficult to read, then we have failed – artistic quality be damned.
I prefer to think of the work we do – and do damned well – to be more craftsmanlike than artistic. We don’t invent out of whole cloth to satisfy our own souls so much as make order and meaning from known facts in the service of specific audiences with specific needs, goals, and expectations. That doesn’t make it any easier to do, but if our work makes it easier for the reader – and satisfies our clients’ needs – then we have done our job well.